Frugal Road Trips

Frugal Road Trips

I have a lot going on this year, so it’s a bit harder to commit full weekends flying to the exotic trips I’ve been enjoying.  However, it’s a great opportunity to up my frugal road trip game!

During the Planning Phase


Since you’re taking a car, you can really end up anywhere.  You can snag some great last-minute deals on empty rooms, scored even the week before your trip.  If you feel like just driving until you don’t want to drive anymore, there are still plenty of nice hotels or motels you could end up at.  You should have some idea of what’s available in certain areas, but it’s OK to not have a formal plan.

When booking in advance, make sure wherever you are staying has parking.  You’ll obviously need it.


You can bring groceries along or buy groceries when you arrive.  If you are driving both ways, you can load the car with a cooler and keep drinks and snacks in that, too.  Even if you’re only driving one way, there are plenty of Styrofoam coolers available, and my Airbnb guests often leave them behind.  Definitely a cost savings to have your own food with!

Having a car also allows you to go off the beaten path when it comes to finding places to eat.  Places outside the main areas are likely to have lower prices on great food.

Renting a Car

Even if you have a great car, you should always do the math to figure out if renting a car for the trip is cheaper.  If you drive 300 miles a day and get 10 miles per gallon more, you’ve potentially covered the price of the rental car.  The price of gas and miles per gallon aren’t the only factor.  There’s also the wear and tear on your car and the miles added to the odometer.  New cars have great fuel economy and often have really nice extras (like leather seats and a satellite radio).  Additionally, there’s the safety factor.  Some older cars might not be as good for long distances, especially if there is a risk you’ll be stranded on the side of the road.  Whichever route you choose, make sure it’s safe.

Make sure your car is the right size.  Two people don’t need an SUV for a road trip.  On the other hand, if there are five people coming along, an SUV might be a lot more comfortable.

You can check for cheaper rental cars up to the day of your trip.  Often you can score great last minute deals with HotWire or other travel sites.  I’ve found deals as low as $15-20/day or less.  I go to the airport for my car rentals since it’s way cheaper, and ask a friend to drop me off and pick me up.  Credit cards or your own car insurance will sometimes cover your rental car insurance, so check that first before signing up for the car rental company’s plan.

You also might consider renting a car to go one way and then flying the other way, depending on the price of the plane ticket and where you want to go.  Even though you have a car, you still don’t need more than one bag.  Besides, extra weight means extra fuel.  You could acquire groceries before your trip and use them up before flying back, or you could fly there and buy groceries when you arrive.  Either way, you save!  We’ve driven down to Fort Lauderdale (car rental one way plus gas ended up at $70) and then flew back for less ($25/plane ticket), which was a huge time saver.

Always Do Your Car Maintenance

Change the oil and rotate the tires regularly.  This makes your car more efficient and helps your car last longer.

Check your tire pressure regularly (once a month), and especially before trips.  Underinflated tires use more fuel.  Overinflated tires can cause uneven wear on the tires and problems with the tire gripping the road.

Take Advantage of Technology

Use Your GPS

It will help you find the most efficient routes to your destination.  Even if you know where you are going, you could still get stuck in traffic, which wastes both time and gas.  It can be especially tough in new areas where you don’t know when rush hour is.

Gas Buddy

Hurricane Irma alerted me to the Gas Buddy app, which tells you the price of gas and whether or not a station is out of it (crucial information during an evacuation).  It takes very little time to pull up the app to check the local prices, but sometimes you can save 10 cents a gallon by driving an extra half mile down the road.  If you’re traveling far, the savings can add up.  The app is updated by users, so the more people who are using and updating the app, the more accurate it will be.  It even tells you when the last update was for each station.  (Often, it’s only minutes in popular areas.)

Gas-saving Driving Techniques

I use these in my daily life!  They will maximize your car’s efficiency.

  • Don’t accelerate fast or brake hard. Focus on the road, pay attention to traffic, and decelerate and keep rolling instead of braking (when appropriate).
  • Aim for a constant speed at or under 65mph. Feel free to let up on the gas when going either up or downhill.
  • Turn off the engine when you’re stopped or waiting for someone more than a minute, including when you run back into your house because you forgot something. You can open the windows instead of blasting the air conditioning if you’re sitting in the car.
  • Open the windows while driving instead of using the air conditioner to save fuel.
  • For cold weather: Don’t leave the car idling to warm up. Instead, scrape ice and start driving.  It will warm up faster and be more efficient.

Buy a Car with Better Gas Mileage

No gas saving technique can make up for a car that just has poor gas mileage.  It might be worth trading your car in if your gas mileage isn’t very good, both for your daily life and the trips you take.


Happy trails!

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